Catarina of Venice, the Girl of the Grand Canal
"Who is he? Why do you not know, Catarina mia? 'T is his Most Puissant Excellency, the mighty Lord of Lusignan, the runaway Heir of Jerusalem, the beggar Prince of Cyprus, with more titles to his name—ho ho, ho!—than he hath jackets to his back; and with more dodging than ducats, so 't is said, when the time to pay for his lodging draweth nigh. Holo, Messer Principino! Give you good-day, Lord of Lusignan! Ho, below there here is tribute for you."
And down upon the head of a certain sad-faced, seedy-looking young fellow in the piazza, or square, beneath, descended a rattling shower of bonbons, thrown by the hand of the speaker, a brown-faced Venetian lad of sixteen.
But little Catarina Cornaro, just freed from the imprisonment of her convent-school at Padua, felt her heart go out in pity towards this homeless young prince, who just now seemed to be the butt for all the riot and teasing of the boys of the Great Republic.
"Nay, nay, my Giorgio," she said to her brother; " 't is neither fair nor wise so to beset one in dire distress. The good sisters of our school have often told us that 't is better to be a beggar than a dullard; and sure yon prince, as you do say he is, looketh to be no dolt. But ah, see there!" she cried, leaning far over the gayly draped balcony; "see, he can well use his fists, can he not! Nay, though, 't is a shame so to beset him, say I. Why should our lads so misuse a stranger and a prince?"
It was the Feast Day of St. Mark, one of the jolliest of the old-time holidays of Venice, that wonderful City of the Sea, whose patron and guardian St. Mark, the apostle, was supposed to be. Gondolas, rich with draperies of every hue that completely concealed their frames of sombre black, shot in and out, and up and down all the water-streets of the beautiful city; while towering palace and humbler dwelling alike were gay with gorgeous hangings and fluttering streamers.
In noticeable contrast with all the brilliant costumes and laughing faces around him was the lad who just now seemed in so dire a strait. He had paused to watch one of the passing pageants from the steps of the Palazzo Cornaro, quite near the spot where, a century later, the famous bridge known as the Rialto spanned the Street of the Nobles, or Grand Canal—one of the most notable spots in the history of Venice the Wonderful.
The lad was indeed a prince, the representative of a lordly house that for more than five hundred years had been strong and powerful, first as barons of France, and later as rulers of the Crusaders' kingdom of Jerusalem and the barbaric but wealthy island of Cyprus. But poor Giacomo, or James, of Lusignan, royal prince though he was, had been banished from his father's court in Cyprus. He had dared rebel against the authority of his step-mother, a cruel Greek princess from Constantinople, who ruled her feeble old husband and persecuted her spirited young step-son, the Prince Giacomo.
And so, with neither money nor friends to help him on, he had wandered to Venice. But Venice in 1466, a rich, proud, and prosperous city, was a very poor place for a lad who had neither friends nor money; for, of course, the royal prince of a little island in the Mediterranean could not so demean himself as to soil his hands with work!
So I imagine that young Prince Giacomo had any thing but a pleasant time in Venice. On this particular Feast Day of St. Mark, I am certain that he was having the most unpleasant of all his bitter experiences, as, backed up against one of the columns of the Cornaro Palace, he found himself surrounded by a crowd of thoughtless young Venetians, who were teasing and bullying him to the full content of their brutal young hearts.
The Italian temper is known to be both hot and hasty; but the temper of oriental Cyprus is even more fiery, and so it was not surprising that, in this most one-sided fray, the fun soon became fighting in earnest; for anger begets anger.
All about the young prince was a tossing throng of restless and angry boys, while the beleaguered lad, still standing at bay, flourished a wicked-looking stiletto above his head and answered taunt with taunt.
At this instant the door of the Cornaro Palace opened quickly, and the Prince Giacomo felt himself drawn bodily within; while a bright-faced young girl with flashing eye and defiant air confronted his greatly surprised tormentors.
"Shame, shame upon you, boys of Venice," she cried, "thus to ill-use a stranger in your town! Is a score of such as you against one poor lad the boasted chivalry of Venice? Eh via! the very fisher-lads of Mendicoli could teach you better ways!"
Taken quite aback by this sudden apparition and these stinging words, the boys dispersed with scarce an attempt to reply, and all the more hastily because they spied, coming up the Grand Canal, the gorgeous gondola of the Companions of the Stocking, an association of young men under whose charge and supervision all the pageants and displays of old Venice were given.
So the piazza was speedily cleared; and the Prince Giacomo, with many words of thanks to his young and unknown deliverers, hurried from the spot which had so nearly proved disastrous to him.
Changes came suddenly in those unsettled times. Within two years both the Greek step-mother and the feeble old king were dead, and Prince Giacomo, after a struggle for supremacy with his half-sister Carlotta, became King of Cyprus.
Now Cyprus, though scarcely as large as the State of Connecticut, was a very desirable possession, and one that Venice greatly coveted. Some of her citizens owned land there, and among these was Marco Cornaro, father of Catarina. And so it happened that, soon after the accession of King Giacomo, Messer Andrea Cornaro, the uncle of Catarina, came to Cyprus to inspect and improve the lands belonging to his brother Marco.
Venice, in those days was so great a power that the Venetian merchants were highly esteemed in all the courts of Europe. And Uncle Andrea, who had probably loaned the new king of Cyprus a goodly store of Venetian ducats, became quite, friendly with the young monarch, and gave him much sage advice.
One day—it seemed as if purely by accident, but those old Venetians were both shrewd and far-seeing—Uncle Andrea, talking of the glories of Venice, showed to King Giacomo a picture of his niece, Catarina Cornaro, then a beautiful girl of fourteen.
King Giacomo came of a house that was quick to form friendships and antipathies, loves and hates. He "fell violently in love with the picture,"—so the story goes,—and expressed to Andrea Cornaro his desire to see and know the original.
"That face seemeth strangely familiar, Messer Cornaro," he said.
He held the portrait in his hands, and seemed struggling with an uncertain memory. Suddenly his face lighted up, and he exclaimed joyfully:
"So; I have it! Messer Cornaro, I know your niece."
"You know her, sire?" echoed the surprised Uncle Andrea.
"Ay, that indeed I do," said the king. "This is the same fair and brave young maiden who delivered me from a rascal rout of boys on the Grand Canal at Venice, on St. Mark's Day, scarce two years ago." And King Giacomo smiled and bowed at the picture as if it were the living Catarina instead of her simple portrait.
Here now was news for Uncle Andrea. And you may be sure he was too good a Venetian and too loyal a Cornaro not to turn it to the best advantage. So he stimulated the young king's evident inclination as cunningly as he was able. His niece Catarina, he assured the king, was as good as she was beautiful, and as clever as she was both.
"But then," he declared, "Venice hath many fair daughters, sire, whom the king's choice would honor, and Catarina is but a young maid yet. Would it not be wiser, when you choose a queen, to select some older donzella for your bride? Though it will, I can aver, be hard to choose fairer."
It is just such half-way opposition that renders nature like that of this young monarch all the more determined. No! King Giacomo would have Catarina, and Catarina only, for his bride and queen. Messer Cornaro must secure her for him.
But shrewd Uncle Andrea still feared the jealousy of his fellow-Venetians. Why should the house of Cornaro, they would demand, be so openly preferred? And so, at his suggestion, an ambassador was despatched to Venice soliciting an alliance with the Great Republic, and asking from the senate the hand of some high-born maid of Venice in marriage for his highness, the King of Cyprus. But you may be very sure that the ambassador had special and secret instructions alike from King Giacomo and from Uncle Andrea just how and whom to choose.
The ambassador came to Venice, and soon the senate issued its commands that upon a certain day the noblest and fairest of the daughters of Venice —one from each of the patrician families—should appear in the great Council Hall of the Ducal Palace in order that the ambassador of the King of Cyprus might select a fitting bride for his royal master. It reads quite like one of the old fairy stories, does it not? Only in this case the dragon who was to take away the fairest maiden as his tribute was no monster, but the brave young king of a lovely island realm.
The Palace of the Doges—the Palazzo Ducale of old Venice—is familiar to all who have ever seen a picture of the Square of St. Mark's, the best known spot in that famous City of the Sea. It is the low, rectangular, richly decorated building with its long row of columns and arcades that stand out so prominently in photograph and engraving. It has seen many a splendid pageant, but it never witnessed a fairer sight than when on a certain bright day of the year 1468 seventy-two of the daughters of Venice, gorgeous in the rich costumes of that most lavish city of a lavish age, gathered in the great Consiglio, or Council Hall.
Up the Scala d'Oro, or Golden Staircase, built only for the use of the nobles, they came, escorted by the ducal guards, gleaming in their richest uniforms. The great Council Hall was one mass of color; the splendid dresses of the ladies, the scarlet robes of the senators and high officials of the Republic, the imposing vestments of the old doge, Cristofero Moro, as he sat in state upon his massive throne, and the bewildering array of the seventy-two candidates for a king's choice. Seventy-two, I say, but in all that company of puffed and powdered, coifed and combed young ladies, standing tall and uncomfortable on their ridiculously high-heeled shoes, one alone was simply dressed and apparently unaffected by the gorgeousness of her companions, the seventy-second and youngest of them all.
She was a girl of fourteen. Face and form were equally beautiful, and a mass of "dark gold hair" crowned her "queenly head." While the other girls appeared nervous or anxious, she seemed unconcerned, and her face wore even a peculiar little smile, as if she were contrasting the poor badgered young prince of St. Mark's Day with the present King of Cyprus hunting for a bride. "Eh via!" she said to herself, " 't is almost as if it were a revenge upon us for our former churlishness, that he thus now puts us to shame."
The ambassador of Cyprus, swarthy of face and stately in bearing, entered the great hall. With him came his attendant retinue of Cypriote nobles. Kneeling before the doge, the ambassador presented the petition of his master, the King of Cyprus, seeking alliance and friendship with Venice.
"And the better to secure this and the more firmly to cement it, Eccellenza," said the ambassador, "my lord and master the king doth crave from your puissant state the hand, of some high-born damsel of the Republic as that of his loving and acknowledged queen."
The old doge waved his hand toward the fair and anxious seventy-two.
"Behold, noble sir," he said, "the fairest and noblest of our maidens of Venice. Let your eye seek among these a fitting bride for your lord, the King of Cyprus, and it shall be our pleasure to give her to him in such a manner as shall suit the power and dignity of the State of Venice."
Courteous and stately still, but with a shrewd and critical eye, the ambassador of Cyprus slowly passed from candidate to candidate, with here a pleasant word and there a look of admiration; to this one a honeyed compliment upon her beauty, to that one a bit of praise for her elegance of dress.
How oddly this all sounds to us with our modern ideas of propriety and good taste! It seems a sort of Prize Girl Show, does it not? Or, it is like a competitive examination for a royal bride.
But, like too many such examinations, this one had already been settled beforehand. The King had decided to whom the prize of his crown should go, and so, at the proper time, the critical ambassador stopped before a slight girl of fourteen, dressed in a robe of simple white.
"Donzella mia," he said courteously, but in a low tone; "are not you the daughter of Messer. Marco Cornaro, the noble merchant of the Via Merceria?"
"I am, my lord," the girl replied.
"My royal master greets you through me," he said. "He recalls the day when you did give him shelter, and he invites you to share with him the throne of Cyprus. Shall this be as he wishes?"
And the girl, with a deep courtesy in acknowledgment of the stately obeisance of the ambassador, said simply, "That shall be, my lord, as my father and his Excellency shall say."
The ambassador of Cyprus took the young girl's hand, and, conducting her through all that splendid company, presented her before the doge's throne.
"Excellency," he said, "Cyprus hath made her choice. We present to you, if so it shall please your grace, our future queen, this fair young maid, Catarina, the daughter of the noble Marco Cornaro, merchant and senator of the Republic."
What the seventy-one disappointed young ladies thought of the King's choice, or what they said about it when they were safely at home once more, history does not record. But history does record the splendors and display of the ceremonial with which the gray-haired old doge, Cristofero Moro, in the great hall of the palace, surrounded by the senators of the Republic and all the rank and power of the State of Venice, formally adopted Catarina as a "daughter of the Republic." Thus to the dignity of her father's house was added the majesty of the great Republic. Her marriage portion was placed at one hundred thousand ducats, and Cyprus was granted, on behalf of this "daughter of the Republic," the alliance and protection of Venice.
The ambassador of Cyprus standing before the altar of St. Mark's as the personal representative of his master, King Giacomo was married "by proxy" to the young Venetian girl; while the doge, representing her new father, the republic, gave her away in marriage, and Catarina Cornaro, amid the blessings of the priests, the shouts of the people, and the demonstrations of clashing music and waving banners, was solemnly proclaimed Queen of Cyprus, of Jerusalem, and of Armenia.
But the gorgeous display, before which even the fabled wonders of the "Arabian Nights" were but poor affairs, did not conclude here. Following the splendors of the marriage ceremony and the wedding-feast, came the pageant of departure. The Grand Canal was ablaze with gorgeous colors and decorations. The broad water-steps of the Piazza of St. Mark was soft with carpets of tapestry, and at the foot of the stairs floated the most beautiful boat in the world, the Bucentaur or state gondola, of Venice. Its high, carved prow and framework were one mass of golden decorations. White statues of the saints, carved heads of the lion of St. Mark, the doge's cap, and the emblems of the Republic adorned it throughout. Silken streamers of blue and scarlet floated from its standards; and its sides were draped in velvet hangings of crimson and royal purple. The long oars were scarlet and gold, and the rowers were resplendent in suits of blue and silver. A great velvet-covered throne stood on the upper deck, and at its right was a chair of state, glistening with gold.
Down the tapestried stairway came the Doge of Venice, and, resting upon his arm, in a white bridal dress covered with pearls, walked the girl queen Catarina. Doge and daughter seated themselves upon their sumptuous thrones, their glittering retinue filled the beautiful boat, the scarlet oars dipped into the water; and then, with music playing, banners streaming, and a grand escort of boats of every conceivable shape, flashing in decoration and gorgeous in mingled colors, the bridal train floated down the Grand Canal, on past the outlying islands, and between the great fortresses to where, upon the broad Adriatic, the galleys were waiting to take the new Queen to her island kingdom off the shores of Greece. And there, in his queer old town of Famagusta, built with a curious commingling of Saracen, Grecian, and Norman ideas, King Giacomo met his bride.
So they were married, and for five happy years all went well with the young King and Queen. Then came troubles. King Giacomo died suddenly from a cold caught while hunting, so it was said; though some averred that he had been poisoned, either by his half-sister Carlotta, with whom he had contended for his throne, or by some mercenary of Venice, who desired his realm for that voracious Republic.
But if this latter was the case, the voracious Republic of Venice was not to find an easy prey. The young Queen Catarina proclaimed her baby boy King of Cyprus, and defied the Great Republic. Venice, surprised at this rebellion of its adopted "daughter," dispatched embassy after embassy to demand submission. But the young mother was brave and stood boldly up for the rights of her son.
But he, too, died. Then Catarina, true to the memory of her husband and her boy, strove to retain the throne intact. For years she ruled as Queen of Cyprus, despite the threatenings of her home Republic and the conspiracies of her enemies. Her one answer to the demands of Venice was:
"Tell the Republic I have determined never to remarry. When I am dead, the throne of Cyprus shall go to the State, my heir. But until that day I am Queen of Cyprus!"
Then her brother Giorgio, the same who in earlier days had looked down with her from the Cornaro Palace upon the outcast Prince of Cyprus, came to her as ambassador of the Republic. His entreaties and his assurance that, unless she complied with the senate's demand, the protection of Venice would be withdrawn, and the island kingdom left a prey to Saracen pirates and African robbers, at last carried the day. Worn out with long contending, fearful, not for herself but for her subjects of Cyprus,—she yielded to the demands of the senate, and abdicated in favor of the Republic.
Then she returned to Venice. The same wealth of display and ceremonial that had attended her departure welcomed the return of this obedient daughter of the Republic, now no longer a light-hearted young girl, but a dethroned queen, a widowed and childless woman.
She was allowed to retain her royal title of Queen of Cypus, and a noble domain was given her for a home in the town of Asola, up among the northern mountains. Here, in a massive castle, she held her court. It was a bright and happy company, the home of poetry and music, the arts, and all the culture and refinement of that age, when learning belonged to the few and the people were sunk in densest ignorance.
Here Titian, the great artist, painted the portrait of the exiled queen that has come down to us. Here she lived for years, sad in her memories of the past, but happy in her helpfulness of others until, on her way to visit her brother Giorgio in Venice, she was stricken with a sudden fever, and died in the palace in which she had played as a child.
With pomp and display, as was the wont of the Great Republic, with a city hung with emblems of mourning, and with the solemn strains of dirge and mass filling the air, out from the great hall of the Palazzo Cornaro, on, across the heavily draped bridge that spanned the Grand Canal from the water-gate of the palace, along the broad piazza crowded with a silent throng, and into the Church of the Holy Apostles, the funeral procession slowly passed. The service closed, and in the great Cornaro tomb in the family chapel, at last was laid to rest the body of one who had enjoyed much but suffered more—the sorrowful Queen of Cyprus, the once bright and beautiful Daughter of the Republic."
Venice to-day is mouldy and wasting. The palace in which Catarina Cornaro spent her girlhood is now a pawnbroker's shop. The last living representative of the haughty house of Lusignan—Kings, in their day, of Cyprus, of Jerusalem, and of Armenia—is said to be a waiter in a French cafe. So royalty withers and power fades. There is no title to nobility save character, and no family pride so unfading as a spotless name. But, though palace and family have both decayed, the beautiful girl who was once the glory of Venice and whom great artists loved to paint, sends us across the ages, in a flash of regal splendor, a lesson of loyalty and helpfulness. This, indeed, will outlive all their queenly titles, and shows her to us as the bright-hearted girl who, in spite of sorrow, of trouble, and of loss, developed into the strong and self-reliant woman.